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One for the Read

Picture Book of Cars Is in Never-Never Land

April 04, 2001|CHARLES SOLOMON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Roadside America: The Automobile and the American Dream," by Lucinda Lewis (Abrams: $49.50. 271 pages, illustrated).

*

America's fascination with cars and car culture remains undimmed at the start of the 21st century, and there's no shortage of interpreters offering readers their views on just what that fascination means.

Lucinda Lewis adds her voice to the chorus in this handsome but unsatisfying volume.

"My self-appointed mission is to record our 20th century car culture on film and I can tell you it's a race against the wrecking ball," she declares.

Lewis' modus operandi is to find an old but refurbished building--usually neon-lit--and use it as a backdrop for photographs of one or more lovingly restored vintage autos.

In the book's introduction, she proclaims that her goal "is always to make tangible the memories that lie dormant in these roadside attractions--to peel away the layers of time and put the viewer in an imaginary driver's seat, envisioning what it might have been like to drive this particular location during its heyday in a car of the period."

But instead of memories or even daydreams of bygone eras, she presents glitzy fantasies of a never-never land where everyone owns a shiny auto without a dent or scratch to mar its reflective surface, where there's no trash in the street or homeless people on the corner, where the light is flattering and Dion always is playing on the AM radio.

It's not surprising that Lewis has worked as a photographer for the advertising industry.

Virtually every car presented here is bathed in the golden light available just before sunrise and just after sunset, and her pictures look more like ads for a classic car dealership than portraits of roadside America.

She seems blithely unaware of the irony of juxtaposing these lush photos with accounts of long-ago road trips sent in by readers of Modern Maturity.

Old-timers describe outings that include flat tires, suffocating desert heat in the days before air-conditioning became common, engine trouble, crates of food in the back seat, impromptu camping trips and fussy kids. None of that appears in these color illustrations.

Lewis' descriptions are sometimes more enthusiastic than accurate.

She sets up Jack Kerouac and his Beat compatriots as spokesmen for the "go, baby, go" 1950s when the average American of that era more likely would have been listening to Arthur Godfrey and Ozzie Nelson.

Occasionally, "Roadside America" is just plain silly.

Lewis photographs a '66 Cadillac in front of Las Vegas' Luxor Hotel, built decades after the car, and burbles, "The Luxor re-creates the era when pharaohs ruled the Nile. If Cleopatra was [sic] alive today, we believe she would travel the Strip in style with this 1966 Cadillac DeVille Convertible Coupe as her royal barge."

The Luxor (which bears the same relationship to Pharaonic Egypt that Mann's Chinese Theatre does to the Forbidden City) and the bloated Cadillac both epitomize a vulgar consumerism, an ersatz notion of "class" and a crass willingness to squander nonrenewable resources.

But such harsh realities have no place in Lewis' idealized Autopia.

The result is a book that tells the reader less about its ostensible subject than it should, and whose most interesting messages are inadvertent.

*

Charles Solomon can be reached at highway1@latimes.com.

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